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The connection between food and sex is almost too obvious: Both are the provinces of physical experience, taste, and desire, ruled by base cravings and animal appetites. No less a sage than Cher Horowitz, in the 1995 film Clueless, advises the viewer that, when aiming to seduce, “anything you can do to draw attention to your mouth is good.” The line is delivered over a shot of Cher looking over her shoulder at her crush before sensually biting into a chocolate truffle.
It’s no surprise, then, that what we eat is often front and center in romance novels, with depictions of tempting treats stretching from Tita’s magical realist cooking in the 1995 hit Like Water for Chocolate to the doughnuts and tacos that lovers bond over in Jasmine Guillory’s books, beginning with her 2018 debut, The Wedding Date. It’s historically rare, though, that romantic novels have taken on the decidedly less-glamorous world of restaurant work, where long hours, class dynamics, and a sometimes-abusive atmosphere can transform the act of making food from magical and intimate into demanding, demeaning labor. A handful of books published since 2021 aim to change that—tracing the sensuality and the scars that come along with kitchen life.
Akwaeke Emezi’s You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty is the author’s own spin on the genre—a lushly poetic novel inspired by the romances they read and loved growing up in Nigeria. The book centers on Feyi, an artist living in New York and mourning the death of her husband, and her collision with Alim, a Michelin-starred chef marked by losses of his own. When Emezi decided to write a romance novel after a career spent publishing mostly literary fiction, they wanted it to be “fun,” they say, and so picking the right love interest was crucial. “I really wanted them to be an artist,” they tell me during a recent phone call. “I was like, what is the sexiest [artist] I can think of? And the answer was, he should obviously be a chef. Someone who can take something that is fundamental to being alive and then turn it into art.”
Chefs—particularly celebrities like Alim—also have power, which Emezi acknowledges can be an aphrodisiac. “The thing that's sexy about power is the possibilities and freedom that money gives you under capitalism,” they note. “You can do what you want, because you have the means.” Chefs aren’t just good cooks—they’re people who can command a room, run a business, and then spoil someone with the proceeds. The only thing hotter than an artist is an artist with a job, and a bank balance that’s firmly in the black.
But the kind of visibility that it takes for chefs to make money can come with some hazards. In Anita Kelly’s Love & Other Disasters, a nonbinary character named London Parker is trying to provide representation for the trans community by appearing on a TV show called Chef’s Special—which means, among other things, dealing with transphobia on and off the set. Kelly, who is also nonbinary, says that they initially chose to set their book on a TV show for technical reasons. “It was a cheat in a way, writing-wise,” they admit, because a season provides a premade plot arc for the novel to follow. “But I’ve always loved food, and I feel like food and romance go hand in hand, naturally.”
As London and their love interest, Dahlia, learned to cook, Kelly was able to explore self-care and class status. “I think [both characters] used food to take care of themselves,” Kelly says. “London started cooking from a very young age, but they always felt different and like an outcast. Cooking was this orbit where they could feel in control, and like they were making wonderful things all by themselves.” Dahlia, on the other hand, taught herself how to cook after getting divorced in her mid-20s, and had to do it on a budget. “I especially liked her being part of the foodie world because she’s not rich, so she teaches herself to cook on pretty cheap ingredients,” Kelly says. “I wanted to include her as a way to say, ‘You can make great things with very basic ingredients, no matter who you are.’”
One thing Kelly agrees with Emezi on: witnessing someone who is skillful and engaged with their work is definitely a turn on. “I find it very sexy,” Kelly says. “One of my themes is competence porn, which is a trope in romance.”
Author Julie Tieu’s chef characters are much further from the limelight. In The Donut Trap, protagonist Jasmine is living with her parents after graduating from college and helping them run the doughnut shop they’ve been operating since they fled Cambodia for the U.S. before she was born. The work is presented as mostly onerous and boring: The shop is open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., and they can’t afford to hire any other employees, which means at least one of her parents is basically always working.
Tieu drew on her own experiences in her family’s doughnut shop growing up, in part because it was familiar to her, but also because she thought it would draw readers into a world they might not be familiar with. Doughnuts are often seen as an American staple, but most of the shops in California, where Tieu was raised, are operated by immigrants like her parents. “It’s a different story than someone making their own food in their own restaurant; here’s this quintessentially American food that is primarily made by refugees,” she says. “I thought it was a great vehicle to have this image of a doughnut shop that people are so instantly attracted to because it’s sweet and brings a lot of positive memories.”
Tieu wanted to examine how these traditional mom and pop shops might deal with the digital era. “My parents retired a long time ago, but I thought to myself, What would my parents do in this Instagram age, where there’s all these highly decorated, really fancy flavors that are coming out?” She also wanted to capture a way of life that she says is disappearing as the generations turn over. “A lot of owners are getting older and are retiring,” Tieu says. “So I wanted to capture this type of story while it was still in existence.”
In all three novels, food, made professionally or personally, is central to establishing community and identity—but that doesn’t mean it’s always joyful. For Emezi, longing for certain tastes can be “a big part of homesickness.” Their own displacement served as a muse for You Made a Fool of Death, which features two queer characters falling in love. “A lot of the time with my work, I’m thinking about the ways that, for queer people who are part of the African diaspora, we can’t really go home the way that other people can because it’s illegal for us to exist there,” they say. “You end up in exile. And the loss of access to your food becomes an element of that isolation.”
In Tieu’s family, cooking signaled care. “I think food, especially for my family but I’m sure for a lot of Asian cultures, is the way we nurture each other,” she says. Tieu also remembers using doughnuts from her parents’ store as part of her early attempts at flirtation. “Every day that I would work, I’d ask my parents, ‘Can I take these extra doughnuts to school tomorrow?’” Tieu recalls. “I would take this box to school, this pink box, and everybody’s eyes just lit up. I remember thinking, This is my way of breaking the ice whenever I wanted to talk to someone I have a crush on.”
That sense of sweetness lingers in all of these books despite the hardships. Romance is a genre defined in part by its commitment to delivering happily ever afters for its characters, and their imagined futures feel particularly enticing when we know they will include many good meals—alongside other indulgences of the flesh, of course.
They’re also all the more satisfying because they offer some bitter with that sweet, acknowledging complex realities of race, identity, and class without suggesting that any of those things are impediments to loving and being loved. “You can learn a lot about a person, their family background, their culture and their memories through the food that means the most to them,” Kelly says. “I think [food] plays into romance so well because the same can be said of love—it’s this thing that most people want, but it’s also very personal, and everybody’s personal relationships are as diverse as their palates.” “Chef” is a job, but cooking, eating, and feeding one another are things we can all do every day of our lives.
Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit